Maurice Cox at the Ideas City Detroit conference in April
Justin Milhouse Maurice Cox at the Ideas City Detroit conference in April

The first time I visited Detroit, five years ago, I got a grand tour one evening from one of the city’s most tireless boosters, advertising exec and author Toby Barlow. He took me to an avant-garde piano concert in the hip neighborhood of Corktown, an artisanal pizza joint near Eastern Market, and, oddly, a wrap party for a Hollywood movie held at a soul food restaurant downtown.

During my trip I realized that if I tagged along with someone like Barlow, I could find a city that felt vital and urbane, a connect-the-dots puzzle of imagination and ambition, in which small-scale and entrepreneurial efforts were leading the way. There was an awakening here, but you had to know where to find it.

Orleans Landing, a 278-unit apartment development that’s nearing completion close to downtown
Erik Paul Howard Orleans Landing, a 278-unit apartment development that’s nearing completion close to downtown

When I returned to Detroit this past September, I discovered a very different city. For one thing, for the first time in decades, Detroit is enjoying an influx of major new construction. Orleans Landing, for example, a 278-unit market-rate apartment development designed by Urban Design Associates (local firm Hamilton Anderson Associates is the production architect), is nearing completion on a site near the edge of downtown, at the intersection of two popular bike and pedestrian trails, the city’s River Walk and the Dequindre Cut. Just to the north, a pair of major developments are underway: City Modern at Brush Park, an architecturally ambitious 405-unit, 8.4-acre residential enclave and, practically next door, District Detroit, a massive 45-acre agglomeration of uses with a new hockey arena at its center. Both projects will boast easy access to the QLine, a 3.3-mile streetcar system along Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s central spine, scheduled to open next year. The QLine is the city’s first new transit since the downtown People Mover opened in 1987.

For another thing, Mayor Mike Duggan has hired the city’s highest-profile planning director since Charles Blessing, who in the 1960s dreamed up a modernist remake of the city that was never implemented (although he did manage to lure Luwig Mies van der Rohe to town to design the beloved apartment and townhouses complex known as Lafayette Park).

Construction on the Q Line near the historic Fox Theatre
Erik Paul Howard Construction on the Q Line near the historic Fox Theatre

A Phenom Named Cox
Architect and urban planner Maurice Cox moved to Detroit last year from New Orleans, where he was associate dean at the Tulane School of Architecture and ran its community-based design studio. Cox is considered to be a phenomenon within urban planning circles: smart, passionate, and inspiring. In 2003, when he was mayor of Charlottesville, Va., I interviewed him for a radio essay about democracy and architecture. We went to the historic part of the University of Virginia campus—he’d taught in the architecture school there—and talked about Thomas Jefferson. Then Cox impressed me by insisting we visit the pedestrian mall downtown and explained how that more workaday place also embodied Jeffersonian ideals.

Today, Cox works in an office dominated by a wall-sized map displaying Detroit’s 100,000 or so publicly owned properties. “The green represents vacant land,” Cox tells me. “The ones with the stars on it are properties that should be demolished, and other stars are properties that can be rehabbed.”

During an hour-long conversation, Cox rattled off more ideas—all of them grounded in reality—than any one city could possibly attempt. Admittedly, many of the schemes he’s setting in motion are an outgrowth of the plan initially called Detroit Works and later Detroit Future City, drawn up during the Dave Bing administration.

Land use proposals from Detroit Future City
courtesy Detroit Future City Land use proposals from Detroit Future City

Bing set out to save the city by lopping off its most abandoned portions. The idea was to divide neighborhoods into three categories—steady, transitional, and distressed. City services like street lights and ambulances would be enhanced at the steady end of the spectrum and removed from the distressed end. Then, in 2013, Detroit went bankrupt, and it elected Duggan. “Tens of thousands of people,” Cox says, referring to Bing’s plan, had already done a lot of thinking about “how the city should form around this question of the million-plus people that have left and are not coming back.”

While Detroit’s population is still shrinking—a city that peaked at nearly 1.9 million in the 1950s is now home to fewer than 700,000 people—the outflow slowed last year to a trickle; the city lost half a percent, or 3,107, of its residents. “People aren’t moving out at anywhere near the rate they were,” Mayor Duggan told the Detroit Free Press. “They are choosing to stay. We’re at a historic tipping point.” According to the mayor, it’s even possible that this year Detroit’s population will grow.

Reimaging the Civic Commons project along the Livernois and McNichols corridor
Reimaging the Civic Commons project along the Livernois and McNichols corridor

A New Vision for Vacant Land
Cox’s vision for the city reflects this change. He is no longer doing triage. He’s not interested in sawing off limbs. If a neighborhood was deemed too far gone, he’s not denying it city services. Rather, he’s trying to pair it with an adjacent neighborhood that’s doing better and finding ways to recast all that vacant land as an asset. To this end, Cox is methodically packaging 10 different areas around the city for revitalization, all of them beyond the perimeter of what locals call the 7.2—shorthand for the size, in square miles, of the downtown. The pilot project involves the blocks adjacent to the intersection of Livernois and McNichols, two commercial streets that are a mix of marginal businesses and vacant storefronts. And, of course, abandoned houses. Cox intends to restore most of them: “We basically are developing a strategy where we go out for a single housing developer who will come into the neighborhood and renovate 80 to 100 homes, secure them as long-term affordable rental,” he explains. The idea is to increase the population of outlying neighborhoods without gentrifying them.

Proposals by Spackman Mossop and Michaels for vacant land in the city
Proposals by Spackman Mossop and Michaels for vacant land in the city

At the same time, Cox is working with a landscape architecture firm from New Orleans, Spackman Mossop and Michaels, on strategies for using vacant land: “We think we can use urban ag and other land-productive uses to regenerate the neighborhood,” he tells me. He wants to encourage and make more visible the sorts of projects that are already happening on a small-scale basis: “They might be people who have a cut-flower business or people who want to grow crops. There are a host of those kinds of businesses, which are already happening, but they don’t have a brand, they don’t have a look. … We want to get it to a point where someone wants to live in a neighborhood because food is being grown there.”

In July, Detroit issued a pair of RFPs for the Fitzgerald Revitalization Project, part of the larger Livernois/McNichols Corridor Revitalization Initiative. One RFP asked for a developer to rehabilitate 100 houses and the other to come up with uses for 257 vacant lots (13 submissions were received, and developers are scheduled to be selected this month). The document features surprisingly lovely renderings of how the vacant land might be used: a wildflower meadow surrounded by a white picket fence, an orchard with a picnic area, a field of hops, presumably for a local microbrewery.

SOM's 50-year plan for Detroit's east riverfront
SOM's 50-year plan for Detroit's east riverfront

Additionally, there’s now a program, Motor City Match, to pair aspiring entrepreneurs with vacant commercial properties. The idea is to fill in the holes in commercial districts to make more viable neighborhoods. The things that are taken for granted in most other cities have to be retrofitted in Detroit: “Now we’re starting to talk about the Motor City Main Street,” Cox tells me. “So, could you get a cluster of businesses—you know, the coffee shop, the dry cleaners, the pharmacy, the family-oriented restaurants—all to cluster on these main streets if we improve the place-making of that street?”

Cox is also focused on reinventing more central parts of the city. He’s got Skidmore, Owings & Merrill working on a master plan to transform a long stretch of land between E. Jefferson Avenue and the Detroit River, including 57 acres that were cleared in the 1990s for a massive casino development that never happened, into a string of transit-oriented, pedestrian friendly neighborhoods.

One Woodward Avenue (left) and 1505 Woodward
One Woodward Avenue (left) and 1505 Woodward

“A Great Time to Be an Architect in Detroit”
Meanwhile, another city-generated RFP was the impetus for what might be the most transformative new development, City Modern at Brush Park, which could dramatically upgrade Detroit’s overall image. The developer is Bedrock Real Estate Services, founded by Dan Gilbert, who moved his company, Quicken Loans, to downtown Detroit from the suburbs in 2010. Since then he’s snapped up some 95 properties in and around downtown, and has renovated and restored significant architectural works, such as Minoru Yamasaki’s 1962 office building, One Woodward Avenue, and Albert Kahn’s handsome 1915 Woodward Building.

Z Deck, a parking garage by Neumann/Smith Architecture and Bedrock that features commissioned murals
Erik Paul Howard Z Deck, a parking garage by Neumann/Smith Architecture and Bedrock that features commissioned murals

More recently, Gilbert hired his very own planning guru, Melissa Dittmer. Formerly an architect at Hamilton Anderson Associates, Dittmer spent her last years there shaping the Detroit Future City project. In 2013, she was hired as the director of architecture and design for Bedrock, where she oversees the adaptive reuse of Gilbert’s historic properties. For Dittmer, whose office in the Quicken Loans building looks out across an urban landscape she’s rapidly remaking, “It’s a great time to be an architect in Detroit.”

By the time Cox stepped into his role at the planning department in 2015, the city had already issued an RFP for the 8.4-acre site in Brush Park. He arrived just time to help select the winning proposal: “We had everything imaginable,” Cox recalls. “Developers who wanted to do faux historic buildings because it was in a really incredibly important historic district. The Bedrock team was certainly the smartest because they acknowledged that there was a kind of medium-density housing that was absent from the marketplace.”

A recent image of the City Modern site
Erik Paul Howard A recent image of the City Modern site
One of the existing historic houses on the City Modern site
Erik Paul Howard One of the existing historic houses on the City Modern site

City Modern, arguably, is Gilbert’s grandest undertaking. Acting as master planner, Dittmer carefully crafted an assemblage of housing types that will also incorporate four of the large, handsome historic homes for which Brush Park is known.

“We created diversity of residential typologies,” Dittmer tells me. Her aim is to conjure up the kind of neighborhood “where people could age in place.” She commissioned work from five different architecture firms, including a number of large rental apartment buildings (with stores on the corners) by Hamilton Anderson Associates and Los Angeles–based Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects. There’s a set of “duplettes,” cleverly interlocking duplexes, lined up in a row, by Boston-based Merge Architects, a firm that also designed carriage houses for the development, and townhouses by Chicago-based Studio Dwell Architects. While the new buildings have been scaled to harmonize with the four remaining historic houses, they are unabashedly modern in style.

City Modern rendering
City Modern rendering
City Modern plan
City Modern plan

Standing in the Bedrock offices examining the table-sized model of the development, I feel like I’m looking at one of those newly remade sections of Amsterdam. The development is sprinkled with rooftop terraces—“the 21st-century reinvention of the porch,” according to Dittmer—and bisected by regular city streets and narrow mews. Parking spaces are included but, whenever possible, tucked away under an overhang. As much as it’s possible in the Motor City, the development is designed to be walkable and transit-oriented. “It’s really a visionary notion about how different neighborhoods will be built, that you could create a traditional neighborhood where contemporary architecture could sit side-by-side with historic architecture,” Cox says.

The Importance of Grassroots
There are other large developments in the pipeline, most notably District Detroit, which is an HOK-designed, publicly subsidized, $650 million, 45-acre, 50-block zone of sports (the new Red Wings hockey arena, plus the existing Comerica Park and Ford Field), entertainment, dining, and other uses. The developer, the Ilitch family, owns Little Caesars Pizza, which is constructing a headquarters on Woodward, in the middle of this new district; like Quicken Loans, Little Caesars is moving into town from the suburbs. The new headquarters (SmithGroupJJR is the architect of record) is distinguished by a façade with 14-foot tall triangular glass panels meant to evoke pizza slices.

Rendering of the District Detroit Little Caesars headquarters
courtesy The District Detroit Rendering of the District Detroit Little Caesars headquarters

And small architecture firms are continuing to take a grassroots approach to development. Brian Hurttienne, AIA, for example, has lived and worked in Detroit his entire adult life. “I started in preservation here in the 1980s,” he tells me. “In some ways it was a lot better then than it is now. There were still over a million people.”

He has lately reinvented himself as a design/build/develop architect. He bought up some vacant lots over the years, and is optimistic enough about Detroit’s future that he wants to build on them. “My whole career has been in a down market. Today is the first time in my career that I can count on sustained growth doing Detroit projects.”

District Detroit under construction
Erik Paul Howard District Detroit under construction

Sustained growth, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s easy to get things built. Doing new construction in a city that isn’t accustomed to it can be tricky. Hurttienne’s small partnership is attempting to develop several infill projects, mostly clusters of discretely modern row houses in neighborhoods like Corktown, near downtown, and further afield in West Village, a historic district not far from the Detroit River. Hurttienne has most of the financing lined up and is eager to begin, but he is encountering a form of NIMBYism: “Many people are questioning the elements of design in historic districts, what qualifies as historic context, and therefore, what is appropriate for infill projects,” he tells me. Because residential infill hasn’t been done in Detroit in decades, Hurttienne wonders: “How are we to evaluate new product in existing environments? We’ve lost decades of gradual infill. Where do we go from here?”

The Dequindre Cut Greenway
Erik Paul Howard The Dequindre Cut Greenway

Hurttienne should find it encouraging that Cox sees City Modern’s combination of historic mansions and overtly modern new construction as visionary. Moreover, Detroit has a Knight Cities Challenge grant to experiment with something called “pink zoning,” to create areas where the rules are relaxed and red tape is scaled back to promote creative development. But change, even in a place that desperately needs it, takes time. “Just the idea of planning being the center of innovation and design is really kind of new for Detroit,” Cox acknowledges.

Still, if Detroit is serious about transforming its 20-plus square miles of vacant land into an asset, and if it wants more than wildflower meadows and orchards, it should do everything it can to encourage small-scale, architecturally innovative developers, especially ones who are deeply committed to the city. After all, it was the risk-takers and entrepreneurs who have helped breathe new life into the Motor City. “There’s a future here that’s never been here before,” Hurttienne says. Best to embrace it.